Great Moments Of Pathos In Half-Hour Comedy

So last week my brother and I sat down in the wee hours to watch an episode of Family Guy – late stage cartoon seasons always fill me with fear ever since The Simpsons’ brakes cut out, but what we found was one of the most engaging and thought-provoking episodes of television we’d seen in a long time.

More on that below, but it got me thinking about how the best comedies have always been able to build a cast of characters rich enough to turn the lever to drama or emotion when suitable.

And as always, suggestions welcome for any I failed to include.

The Simpsons – “Do It For Her”

“Don’t forget. You’re here forever.”

It’s no secret that The Simpsons has lost its way. We won’t talk about that.

What we will talk about is how at one point this show was capable of providing everything you could ever want from a comedy – satire, slapstick, witticisms and wackiness. And every so often it wasn’t so bad at the gut-punching, either.

In And Maggie Makes Three, Homer recounts the birth of his youngest daughter and how he had to sacrifice the dream of working at a bowling alley to return to his old job at the power plant. And for a show that starts off like this…

…it does a remarkable job of making the sacrifices feel real. The greatest moment is, of course, when Homer returns to his desk to be honoured with a plaque reminding him of how awful life is. But instead of letting himself get beaten down, Homer puts pictures of Maggie where he needs them the most.

The clip itself is lost to the Fox Broadcasting corporation’s legal department, so why not enjoy this other heartwarming clip while you still can:

Frasier – Niles As Martin

“You stop right there. You will not put these words in my mouth. I was always proud of you boys, and I will not be portrayed as some drunken, judgmental jackass.”

As a spin-off of Cheers (and a show about a psychiatrist, after all), Frasier was never one to shy away from opportunities for pathos or some deeper thinking on the human condition.

Few episodes managed to adequately marry these elements with the confusing and layered Fawlty Towers-esque plotting that underpinned the series as a whole – bar season 9’s splendid episode Room Full Of Heroes, where Frasier enforces the Halloween spirit with typical intellectual glee by having everyone dress up as their heroes for a game he’s invented.

The game, needless to say, is simultaneously confusing and boring but the revelations therein are where the episode shines. Martin dresses as Joe Dimaggio, Daphne as Elton John, and Frasier as Freud (who else), but when Niles arrives dressed as his father things take a darker turn.

Fuelled by the question “Tell us about your hero’s greatest disappointment” and more beers than Niles has probably ever drunk in his life and, he quickly filters his childhood resentments into a scathing response:

“No offense, Joe, my kids did not care about baseball. Hell, they didn’t care about anything that was important to me. No, no, no, no, no, I’m just saying that you and me, we’re regular guys. You know, we know how to hang out with regular guys and shoot the breeze and, and, and knock a few back. But, 8 of 10 uh, not my kids. No, they’re too good for that stuff. They got all their fancy degrees, but they never learned how to be regular guys. So I guess if I had to pick my two biggest disappointments…”

It’s a rare acknowledgement that the gap that exists between father and sons in this show goes beyond superficial comedy, and though they do make up by episode’s end it’s a sentiment that lingers through subsequent, and previous, parts of the series.

Family Guy – 150th Episode

“Life. Everything. Just having the gun here, knowing there’s a way out… it helps.”

Family Guy isn’t what it used to be. To a certain extent it is, and to a certain extent that’s why it’s not what it used to be – longevity pushes against change, and repetition breeds contempt. For animated shows this is often worse, because the outlandishness begins to pile up and before you know it you’re fighting that chicken for the umpteenth time and you don’t know why.

But for Family Guy’s 150th episode, entitled “Brian & Stewie”, the production team pulled out all the stops – by not pulling out any of them. Gone was the outlandishness, the frenetic story-telling, and most tellingly the cutaway gags which have been simultaneously (and rightly) held up as the show’s greatest strength and biggest weakness.

Instead we just have arguably the show’s most unusual characters locked in a bank vault for the weekend. What starts as an exercise in gross-out humour and some genuinely entertaining action quickly turns into a one-act play, and the few belongings that they have – a whiskey bottle, an unread book, and a gun – become the impetus for one of the show’s deepest moments.

Brian reveals that he keeps these things in a safety deposit box in case, one day, life gets too much for him. It is a shockingly effective moment, because Brian is not admitting a necessary desire to end his life (for that would change the story dynamic forever), but that he considers it – as many do. What is also very effective in hindsight is how over the course of the episode the duo drink the booze, read the book, and fire the gun, without anybody getting hurt. In some ways Brian chooses life by indulging in these things with his best friend.

A strange and powerful one-act play, and one I assume some drama student is working on staging right now. Good luck with the poop eating, is all I’ll say.

Friends – The Break-Up

“This can’t be it.”

“Then how come it is?”

Lest we forget, there was a time when “Ross and Rachel” meant more than the go-to sitcom coupling term of “Ross and Rachel”. Throughout the first two seasons the world watched with relatively bated breath to see if these two kids could make it. In retrospect, the arc of Ross and Rachel seems like one that was done to death, and it was – but in the beginning it was a relatively logical series of events and misunderstandings that lead them to be together.

What seems most shocking in retrospect is that the creators were willing to dispatch with the pairing so quickly – “Ross and Rachel” only lasted 26 episodes, from mid season two to mid season three. It was a testament to how comfortable the writing room was in those days with playing with these characters, and a sacrifice that allowed the pairing of Monica and Chandler to become the show’s centre in later years.

The second oddity about this break-up was how entirely blameful it was. This wasn’t a “conservatory program in Germany that I simply can’t pass up” or an “I need to concentrate on my acting career right now”. This was Ross sleeping with another woman. And The One With The Morning After doesn’t pull any punches either:

“What were you trying to put it in? Her purse?”

It’s a masterfully paced episode that succeeds on multiple levels – as a standard sitcom, as a surprisingly crafty one-act (especially with the addition of the rest of the gang hiding in Monica’s) room, and as a rich piece of television that respects the characters and the medium. And most importantly of all, it ends how it ends – with a break-up that wouldn’t be remedied for another eight years.

The proper version is available here, but any actual clip is not embeddable. Instead, why not have a gander at a Sims 2 version of same? It’s all the creepy polygons and disappearing-and-reappearing furniture you could want from a break-up.

Mad About You – The Oner

“We broke her heart.”

The baby won’t stop crying. Every show does it. Every show that succumbs to the temptation to drop a baby in their late-season characters’ laps does it. And having watched We Need To Talk About Kevin last night I can understand why it sticks in the minds of writers who have kids of their own.

But it’s never been done as well as this.

For the uninitiated, a “oner” is a single shot that comprises a significant or complex length of time – no cutaways, no editing, and no chance for the actors to fluff their lines or trip over sets. ER did it well and often, Joss Whedon has a boner for it, and Children Of Men features some of the most complex oners in cinematic history.

And then Mad About You decides to do an entire episode that’s a oner. In some ways it makes perfect sense – the endless crying of a baby is something that traps a parent. It traps them in their home, it traps them in a state of awakeness, and in this case it traps Paul and Jaime outside their daughter’s bedroom door.

The framing device of the episode sees the two new parents trying out a tested method to get their child to self-soothe. They must leave her alone for periods of time as she cries, only comforting her verbally and only at specific – and increasingly long – intervals. It lets the characters and the actors play with each other, and also perfectly fits the act structure of the show (obviously it cuts to ad breaks, though the show itself was filmed in one shot).

What makes the episode truly shine, though, is its emotional depth. Watching two people, against their better judgement, do the wrong thing for the right reasons, every beat and joke accompanied by that child crying in the background.

They are successful, in the end, but it’s cold comfort. As Jamie points out at in the episode’s final moments:

“Now she knows we’re not always going to be there.”

And that is the price of parenting.

Here’s a slightly abridged version of the episode:

Will & Grace – The Handers

“This isn’t… It’s me. I’m not good, am I? Wait, don’t answer that, I already know. All these years… everybody keeps telling me. Thanks for your time, though. You can, um, put your red light on now, ’cause I–I’m done… with all of this. I’m not an actor. Really, it’s ok. You can turn it on.”

For those outside the theatre world the term “-hander” probably means very little, but it simply describes the number of people taking part in a piece. It’s generally only used in cases where it’s significant, but is becoming more common parlance in television as writers are more daring with the medium. Most soaps do a two- or three-hander each year, while June Brown of Eastenders picked up a BAFTA nomination for her one-hander that saw her conversing with a tape recorder about her lengthy life in and out of Albert Square.

Sitcoms, by definition, work with small casts. So any episode has scenes with few people. But when a show looks the format directly in the eye, as Will & Grace did in its Season 4 episode A Bunch Of White Chicks Sittin’ Around Talkin’, it makes the format something different.

Will and Grace decide that they might be interested in having a baby together, so go see an (off-screen) therapist to discuss. What is more interesting, though, is that Jack and Karen break off into their own one-handers – Jack auditioning for a Broadway show, Karen visiting Stan in prison and conversing with a security camera.

There is something particularly contrived about the scenarios, but that is par for the course in this show. What works is how splitting Jack and Karen into their own solo storylines shows how weak they can be when out of each others’ company. Karen eventually discovers that Stan has refused her visit because he’s been seeing someone else, and Jack – as shown in the quote above – has all his confidence sucked out of him by an audition that shows just how untalented he really is.

It’s not perfect, but it’s a pair of rare emotional moments that actually land.

Futurama – Fry And Seymour

“For a thousand Summers, I will wait for you.”

And now for Futurama. To some The Simpsons’ lesser cousin, to many the perfect combination of nerdiness, visual flair and genuine characterisations to rival any great comedy.

In season four’s Jurassic Bark, Fry manages to resurrect the fossilised corpse of his long-lost dog – rekindling a thousand-year old romance between pet and owner. In the end, though, Fry sees that bringing Seymour back was a mistake, and that he should return him to the fossilised state they found him in.

“I’ll never forget him. But he forgot me a long, long time ago.”

Oh, Fry, you mad fool. As the end of the episode shows, Seymour never forgot him, and it makes for one bummer of a finale to a great episode.


About alfla

Playwright, screenwriter, sometime improv enthusiast and full-time television lover. You know, in THAT way.
This entry was posted in Reviews, Television Reviews, Televisual Musings and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Great Moments Of Pathos In Half-Hour Comedy

  1. kalisheep says:

    These are good. Might I also offer the episode of Saved By The Bell when Jessie gets hooked on caffeine pills? And Fresh Prince when he reunites with his father, evoking the unforgettable scream to uncle Phil: WHO CARES WHAT YOU THINK? YOU’RE NOT MY FATHER!. Chilling moments indeed.

    • alfla says:

      For sure. I give Fresh Prince a pass because it shows evidence of Will Smith actually acting, but Elizabeth Berkley’s performance falls more into the meta hole of Great Moments Of Comedy In Moments Of Pathos In Half-Hour Comedy.

  2. I’m really glad you included Futurama in this list, as I definitely fall into the latter category of fans. I do feel that Modern Family probably deserved a mention.

    • alfla says:

      Many things left out that could have been included. Although I do find Modern Family lays it out in a little thickly in its closing narrations, and the best bits are usually somewhere earlier in the episode.

      I’d also like to give a shout out to Parks & Recreation’s season four finale, which somehow made me desperately upset that Leslie Knope’s run for City Council might be unsuccessful. When a comedy can make a boring and unimportant election emotionally involving, that’s some good writing.

      • I loves me some Parks & Rec. In fairness, there are plenty of sitcoms that probably deserve a mention. It’s a good list. The only thing I would quibble with would be Family Guy, but that’s a personal taste thing more than anything.

  3. Pingback: HelloGiggles – 5 Scenes So Depressing I Can’t Even Watch the Rest of the Movie/TV Show

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